- Elizabeth Peyton
- Ben (Villa d'Este)
- signed, titled and dated Sept. 2002 on the overlap
- oil on canvas
- 60 x 40 inches
Acquired by the present owner from the above in 2002
In Elizabeth Peyton’s 2002 Ben (Villa d’Este), the eponymous Ben leans slightly forward with his hips, his gaze leading outward. The rest of his body seems set at odds with this forward motion. His shoulders are clenched, and his single visible hand fiddles the balcony railing. Ben’s portrait, sketched in oil paint, seems both intimate and vulnerable, though removed. While the details of Ben’s surroundings--the richness of his shirt pattern, the texture of the stone-paved walk beneath him, and the Italian bas-relief in the background are inviting, the central figure remains equivicol. Looking away—both from Peyton, and from us, the viewers—Ben appears mysterious and contemplative. The impressive scale of the work only adds to the familiarity of the moment, inviting, if not beckoning, us to join Ben.
Peyton’s Ben is one in a long line of men that the artist has captured through paint since the early 1990s. Emerging during an era that forsook painting for other, at times newer forms, Peyton’s portraits have always captivated audiences with their solemnity, nostalgia, and twisted romanticism. As is often noted in texts relating to her work, Peyton’s pantheon of subjects evokes a Warholian sense of populist equality. Though she has immortalized countless public figures, Peyton’s populism delineates Queen Elizabeth II with the same casual brushstrokes as Kurt Cobain, and offers equal weight to Johnny Rotten as to John Lennon, just as she does with Ben Brunnemer, Peyton’s assistant from 2000–2004. Through her portraits, Peyton has built a autobiographical cultural time capsule. In her earliest works, Peyton focused on historical figures—figures as distant to us as Napoleon Bonaparte and King Ludwig. Her practice shifted as Peyton began to turn to her contemporaries as subjects, memorializing musicians, artists, and others, from Nirvana’s melancholic Cobain, to a wan Sid Vicious.
Choosing her subjects seems to be a quasi-romantic act for Peyton: usually selecting artists and musicians, Peyton immortalizes people to whom she is close or to whom she feels a certain unspoken affinity. While Peyton’s figures retain their specificity—of a certain cultural moment, a certain social cache, and individual personality—they are also rendered through a transforming and universalizing hand. Through her paintings, Peyton’s subjects are made more luminous, more beautiful, and more dispassionate than they could ever be in reality. Imbued with a childlike adoration, tinged with a touch of nostalgia, Peyton’s painted men form a zeitgeist of their own, both marking out the moment, and transcending its vicissitudes. As critic Jerry Saltz has written,
Peyton was transfixed by these fucked-up, androgynous, needs-a-mom boys, whether the clan of the junkie damned (Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain, and Elvis Presley), or the young princelings and fauntlets of rock (Beck, Liam Gallagher, and Jarvis Cocker). But she painted them with a fluid, sexy touch that negated issues of illustration or kitsch, and helped melt the ice that had formed around painting in the early 1990s. Somehow, Peyton was entirely in her moment and her own mind at the same time: here and there.
In style as well as substance, Peyton’s work is related to that of many other figurative painters who came before her. Her aesthetic coherence is reminiscient of the Austrian artist Egon Schiele, whose unmistakable lines, and gnarled though beautiful bodies could be only his. Like Peyton, Schiele used his contemporaries as his subjects, depicting lovers and friends, as well as other artists, critics, and the like. Yet Schiele, likewise, transformed his subjects from real beings into otherworldly characters. Comparing Peyton’s Ben (Villa d’Este) with one of Schiele’s many self-portraits, Self Portrait with Spread Fingers, the affinities are apparent—from the figure’s enervated posture, to the intense blush on the lips, and the awkward impossibility of the hands. For both of these artists, it is gesture, line, and feeling that take precedence over faithful representation.
Peyton’s portraits also recall the work of David Hockney. Hockney belongs to a previous generation, his works preceding and directly influencing Peyton’s signature paintings. It is a trait that both Hockney and Peyton return to again and again: a persistent reservation within their subjects that implies an unbridgeable gap between we, the viewers, and the people fashioned in paint.
While her style may be indebted to earlier 20th century painters, Peyton holds a unique position among artists of her generation. Her quiet, often small, and cool portraits offer a different path into an expression of relational systems that many of her peers sought to explore through different means. There is something beguiling about Peyton’s portraiture. Perhaps is it the friction between the apparent intimacy of the subjects and the simultaneous distance that seems to shield them that makes her works so captivating to viewers. Ben (Villa d’Este) is a remarkable example of this artist’s hypnotizing body of work.